Watching playoff hockey in August and September, with no NHL hockey in October or November is not the strangest thing that has happened in 2020.
But it does mean the number of actual games happening in the Fall of this pandemic season forms a trickle rather than a torrent.
And it heightens interest in what NHL prospects are doing in Europe and in the QMJHL, where there are games being played... at least for now.
The Ottawa Senators are among the many NHL teams who have loaned players to European clubs on a temporary basis, with the understanding that most, if not all, will report to Ottawa for a training camp once a return-to-play schedule for 2020-21 comes into focus.
Among the Senators prospects playing in Europe are Vitaly Abramov, Lassi Thomson, Rudolfs Balcers, Filip Gustavsson, Erik Brannstrom, Roby Järventie and Filip Chlapik. Third overall draft pick Tim Stuetzle was at Mannheim’s camp in Germany but suffered a fracture in his hand one month ago and is recuperating after surgery.
General manager Pierre Dorion, assistant GM Peter MacTavish and the scouting staff are keeping a virtual eye on their active players in the lead-up to NHL camp. The players themselves are hoping for a running start when the NHL and AHL seasons can begin.
Here’s a sampling of Ottawa prospects who are off to good starts this Fall. We will check in on these and other players down the road:
Filip Gustavsson, G, Sodertalje SK
Record: 8-5-0 | GAA: 2.20 | SV%: .925
Filip Gustavsson is getting lots of work and thriving on it in HockeyAllsvenskan, the second-highest league in the Swedish system. In 14 games played, Gustavsson has an 8-5-0 record with one shutout and sparkling numbers -- a 2.20 goals-against and .925 save percentage. Gustavsson’s backup, Alexander Sahlin, has a 1-4-0 record in five starts.
The 22-year-old is looking to bounce back from an up-and-down 2019-20 season in Belleville of the AHL, one that saw him get passed on the depth chart by Joey Daccord. Daccord recently signed a three-year deal with Ottawa, in which the third year has one-way terms.
F Roby Järventie, LW, Ilves Tampere
GP: 14 | G: 6 | A: 6 | P: 12
If you were one of those who screamed, “Roby who?!?” when the Senators drafted rangy left-winger Roby Järventie with their high second-round pick (33rd overall) in 2020, you might have a better idea now.
Järventie, though ranked just 18th among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting prior to the draft, continues to impress at each level and is currently ripping it up in the Finnish Elite League. His nearly point-per-game performance includes six goals and a plus-11 rating. As a 17-year-old in 2019-20, Järventie played with the men of the Mestis League with KooVee Tampere and was fifth in team scoring -- including 23 goals and 38 points in 36 games. He has a tremendous shot and skates well. Like most teens, the six-foot-two, 184-pound winger just needs to gain strength and work on the defensive side of his game.
Roby Jarventie just RIPPED home his 6th goal of the seasonpic.twitter.com/fRcD8dOSjR
— Sens Prospects (@SensProspects) November 14, 2020
Erik Brannstrom, D, SCL Tigers
GP: 7 | G: 2 | A: 5 | P: 7
Brannstrom won’t likely be the second coming of Erik Karlsson, but he continues to gradually progress. On Sunday, Brannstrom figured in both Tigers goals and set up the game-winner off a long rush up ice in a 2-1 win over SC Bern.
Brannstrom is tied for the team lead in scoring and is getting a chance to play his offensive style in the Swiss League. Though he had just four points in 31 games with Ottawa last season, he was much better after his December callup from Belleville. The 21-year-old started the 2019-20 season in Ottawa but struggled to put his overall game together. He put up 23 points in 27 games in the AHL.
Vitaly Abramov, LW/RW, Jukurit
GP: 6 | G: 5 | A: 2 | P: 7
A former 46-goal man for the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL, Abramov has been known to go on an offensive tear. And he was on one, with five goals in six games, before getting injured and missing last weekend’s games with Jukurit of the Finnish Elite League.
If he can stay healthy, Abramov could be a good reserve forward for the Senators, should there be any setback in the development of more prominent wingers such as Drake Batherson and Alex Formenton. The 22-year-old had one goal in a two-game stint with the Senators last season and produced 41 points in 51 games with the B-Sens.
Vitaly Abramov wins it on a penalty shot in OT!! We've seen this silky move from him a few times before, what a finish.
Just an incredible Liiga debut for Abramov – 2 goals in Jukurit's first win of the season pic.twitter.com/PB1m6D8nzR
— Sens Prospects (@SensProspects) October 15, 2020
Rudolfs Balcers, LW, Stavanger Oilers
GP: 6 | G: 1 | A: 4 | P: 5
It’s not the Swedish or Finnish elite leagues, but the Norwegian League brings a familiarity for Balcers, a Latvian who played for these same Stavanger Oilers as a teenager, before making the leap to Kamloops of the WHL.
The 23-year-old has had opportunities at the NHL level over the past two seasons, with 36 games played in 2018-19 and 15 last season. In that 36-game stretch, he had some success, with five goals and nine assists. Why the dropoff, to three points in 15 games in 2019-20? Balcers was having a great camp in 2019 when he tore his MCL in a pre-season game and missed half the season. After returning, he put up strong numbers in the AHL, with 16 goals and 36 points in 33 games.
“He’s a dynamic player with a great release... we’re confident he’ll set out to prove he’s overcome last year’s setback to be a full-time player in Ottawa,” said GM Pierre Dorion after signing Balcers to a one-year, two-way contract last month. Without the injury, the terms of that deal could have been very different. Instead, Balcers is looking for a rebound year.
Maxence Guenette, D, Val-d'Or Foreurs
GP: 9 | G: 1 | A: 8 | P: 9
He’s not a high-profile prospect, but Maxence Guenette is quietly putting up point-per-game numbers in the ‘Q,’ one of the few North American leagues up and running. Guenette, still just 19, was Ottawa’s final pick in the 2019 draft, selected 187th overall. The six-foot-two, 190-pound, right-shot defenceman had a productive 2019-20 season with a Val d’or team that did not finish in the top half of the league standings. Guenette had 40 points, including 11 goals, in 62 games.